While it would not be fair to treat Inland Empire as a sort of culmination of Lynch’s career, it is certainly tempting.
And so we have come to Inland Empire, David Lynch’s most recent and possibly final movie. It is a bit premature to make that claim, but it is a fact that the nine years since its release is the longest stretch of time the filmmaker has spent without producing a new feature and he has been extremely non-committal about any that may be upcoming. He seems to be occupying his time with stints of acting on Louis CK’s eponymous experimental sitcom and the recently announced revival of “Twin Peaks,” but there’s no indication that Lynch is working on anything similar to a full length film.
While it would not be fair to treat Inland Empire as a sort of culmination of Lynch’s career, it is certainly tempting. In many ways, it feels like the most “Lynchian” of the filmmaker’s work, which is to say that it is willfully opaque, impossibly non-linear and stars a roster of his most trusted collaborators, including Laura Dern, Justin Theroux, Grace Zabriskie and Harry Dean Stanton. It concerns a hidden world (or possibly worlds) that is entered through darkness and the twinning of personas. Abuse of women is a central theme, as is the illusory nature of Hollywood in general and filmmaking in specific. In short, it concerns nearly every subject that occurs in Lynch’s work, except perhaps for sandworms.
But while it may be one of Lynch’s most representative works on a critical level, it is perhaps his least likely to ever be used as introduction. Inland Empire is, even by his standards, a difficult film. Lynch builds on the model he set forth on Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive and pumps up the volume to 11; whereas the former has been likened to a Möbius strip and the latter is essentially a mystery story that can be pieced together through clues and signifiers, Inland Empire is overwhelming in its intricate obscurity. As a filmmaker, Lynch has been accused of telling stories so disjointed and difficult to parse that they might as well be meaningless, but in truth, over the course of his career, he has simply grown less interested in traditional storytelling. Inland Empire is closest to his first feature Eraserhead than anything else he has done, not for its imagery (although there is more than its share of monstrosity and machinery), but in that it makes sense on a profoundly emotional level while being bewildering on a logical one.
By any traditional narrative sense, Inland Empire is a huge mess. The film begins with the image of a gramophone needle and the announcement of Axxon N as “the longest-running radio play in history,” quickly followed by blurred out images of a prostitute and her john in a room. A young woman cries and watches what appears to be the most horrifying sitcom in existence, featuring anthropomorphic rabbits in a luridly green room exchanging cryptic statements between canned laughter. For a brief segment of the film, it seems as though there is a central narrative about an actress named Nikki Grace (Dern) who is cast along with Devon Berk (Theroux) in a new film by a director named Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons). But that reassuring structure collapses almost immediately under the weight of rumors, constructed sets that have too much reality and marital infidelity.
From there on, Inland Empire becomes even less explicable. While it is certainly possible to piece together a narrative from the various episodes of the film, trying to do so would be missing the point of the film entirely. If Lynch had wanted to present a story that was understood in a traditional narrative sense, he absolutely could have; Blue Velvet and The Straight Story demonstrate that he is more than capable. Inland Empire is best understood on an intuitive level, by recognizing signifiers by their thematic resonance, rather than trying to put events together like an Agatha Christie mystery.
For all of its murkiness (and it is a heavily shadowed film), Inland Empire also demonstrates Lynch at his absolute peak in terms of technical filmmaking. His first film shot in digital video, it makes the best use of the slightly too-real quality; while digital can often lend a soap-opera look to a movie, it only heightens the sense of displacement that is Lynch’s stock in trade. His construction of shots to amplify the tension of scenes is peerless; an early scene in which Nikki awkwardly converses with a Polish neighbor (Zabriskie) is a wonderful example. In a series of reverse shots, Nikki the Hollywood actress is framed in a stable, medium close-up shot that could be used for a talk show interview. In contrast, the enigmatic, increasingly acerbic neighbor is focused in a shaky choke-shot from a low angle, highlighting the slowly boiling invasion of safety.
But perhaps most masterful of all is a sequence in which Devon strides off from a table reading in a seemingly deserted sound stage, in pursuit of a mysterious presence known as the Phantom. Much like Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet, Fred Madison in Lost Highway and Rita in Mulholland Drive, a sudden immersion into utter blackness is the trigger for a series of crises. But while Devon walks away, into the dark, the camera reverses to the brightly lit table he has left, zooming tight in on those left in the light. It is both an echo of his previous work and an inversion of it, a shot that does not make physical sense but is absolute emotional perfection.
Can we expect another feature length film from David Lynch? Who knows? While the man himself may be far more of a public figure than many directors, he is as enigmatic as his works. Maybe he will announce a new film out of the blue. Maybe it will be another album of industrial music or a TV mini-series or a designer perfume. Anything is possible.